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Good Vibrations

By New York City
Sebastian Arcelus (center) and the cast of Good Vibrations(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Sebastian Arcelus (center) and the cast of Good Vibrations
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Picture this: A cocktail party during Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction week. It's maybe 20 years from now, when there are no more rock songbooks left to provide the scores for catalogue musicals. A bunch of gray-haired songwriters whose work has been rummaged through for Broadway are discussing who got the best show. Billy Joel is acknowledged as cock of the walk because his autobiographical oeuvre served to inspire the genuinely artistic Movin' Out. Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA grin because their blockbuster ditties were the springboard for the cheerful, money-making Mamma Mia!. A few other aging rockers are holding their heads high as well.

Over in a corner, however, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys is muttering that the producers and creative team behind Good Vibrations almost sent him into another of the debilitating blue moods that plagued him from an early age. He's trying to forget the patchwork production that chewed up his tunes and spit them out of the side of its mouth. He's lamenting that Good Vibrations borrowed ideas from Hairspray, from the above-mentioned Movin' Out and Mamma Mia!, and even a curtain trick from Slava's Snowshow in order to kid audiences into believing they were at something original and fresh. While a few of his peers slap each other on the back over their good fortune, poor Brian buries his head in his hands.

Longtime Beach Boys fans should do the same -- but not necessarily on behalf of Wilson, whose monument of joyful, moody, complex songs is too solid to be destroyed by this piddling tuner. They should be incensed, though, that cynical Broadway producers and craftspersons working at the bottom of their form thought so little of potential audiences that they expected to con them with a jerry-rigged, dim-witted story about three high school graduates from an East Coast industrial town who decide to try California for a summer. (Movin' Out is also about three pals in an industrial town and what happens to them as they do or don't mature.)

The plot of Good Vibrations, attributed to Richard Dresser, is so negligible and so illogical that it's barely worth outlining. Suffice it to say that Bobby (David Larsen) persuades chums Dave (Brandon Wardell) and Eddie (Tituss Burgess) to quit their dead-end burg and accompany him to Surf City. Then he talks nerdy French Club president Caroline (Kate Reinders), who's had a crush on him for years, into chauffeuring the guys on their sybaritic quest. Once Bobby is catching waves in California, he realizes that he's interested in Caroline for more than her wheels -- but now Caroline is down on him because she has overheard the boys discussing how they'd tricked her. Yup, Dresser's plot is one of those that depends for its feeble complications on unintentional eavesdropping. To further detail what occurs would be to waste your time and mine. Does it all get straightened out in the end? What do you think?

Before delving into the arm-length list of what's wrong with Good Vibrations, let me mention the couple of things that are actually right. Tituss Burgess -- playing the part of a guy who leaves his main squeeze, Marcella (Jessica-Snow Wilson), at home -- has a powerful voice and a great smile to go with it. Also doing potent vocal work is Sebastian Arcelus; and, in the "Help Me, Rhonda" number, Milena Govich as the helpful Rhonda dances well. Among the nearly three dozen hit Beach Boys songs that have been shoe-horned into the narrative because they sort of have something to do with what's happening, "In My Room" actually works. The number begins as a solo for Caroline but is broadened to include the other cast members in their respective rooms. It does, indeed capture something of teenage loneliness; in this respect, it wouldn't be a bad companion piece to "The Telephone Hour" from Bye Bye Birdie.

Jessica-Snow Wilson and Tituss Burgessin Good Vibrations(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Jessica-Snow Wilson and Tituss Burgess
in Good Vibrations
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
What's wrong with Good Vibrations? Everything else. Not only do the marvelous songs fail to register beyond their nostalgic pull, they are only passably sung by leads Larsen, Wardell, and Reinders, though a five-boy back-up group and a five-girl back-up group do pass muster. The lyrics to "Fun, Fun, Fun" sound like this: "Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah now, Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah now," and so on. (Tom Morse is the sound designer.) Part of the reason for the choral babble is that the singers are simultaneously executing some of the most uninspired choreography that Broadway has seen in a very long time. You'll have to keep reminding yourself that director-choreographer John Carrafa did such superb work on Urinetown: The Musical just a few years ago -- and you'll marvel at his chutzpah here in inviting unfortunate comparison to Movin' Out director-choreographer Twyla Tharp's Beach Boys' inspired pieces Deuce Coupe (1975) and Deuce Coupe II (1975).

You'll also have to remind yourself that Heidi Ettinger's cluttered, inert set is the work of someone whose sets are often wonderful eye candy. To suggest surf-boardable surf, Ettinger places a few static waves on stage, sends a few cast members down them (on skateboards?), and then leaves the stiff waves sitting there intrusively through most of the second act. To no effect, costume designer Jess Goldstein has the cast changing from T-shirts and shorts to other T-shirts and shorts, from bikinis and jammers to other bikinis and jammers. It's too easy to say that Good Vibrations sends out bad vibrations or that the show is far from fun, fun, fun. Help me, Rhonda, get it out of my head!


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